Fair and ugly: It's not Sonia who should feel offended by Giriraj's comment

"If Rajiv Gandhi had married a Nigerian and if she wasn't white-skinned, would the Congress accept her (Sonia Gandhi) as a leader?"

With that off-the-record comment India's minister for micro small and medium enterprises has kicked off a major row.

A stung Giriraj Singh has apologized via the classic non-apology.

“If Sonia-ji or Rahul-ji have been hurt by my remarks, I express regret.”

Sonia-ji has not surprisingly said nothing. Rahul-ji, of course, cannot say anything because it might break his "introspection" and disclose his top-secret hideout. It has been left to Robert Vadra to spring to the defence of his mother-in-law – “a woman of immense dignity” who “has lost her loved ones for the nation.”

But anyway the apology is misdirected.

Giriraj Singh said nothing insulting about Sonia Gandhi per se even if Ambika Soni waxes indignant about “how dare he say that about Sonia Gandhi who is our president”.

Waxing forth on the hypothetical case about what it might have been if Rajiv Gandhi had married some other person, has nothing to do with the person he actually married. If Soni wants to find some choice insults directly targeting Sonia Gandhi she'd be better off sampling Dr. Subramanian Swamy’s Twitter feed. Clearly Amit Shah’s  about not getting “personal” don’t reach Dr. Swamy’s ears.

If anyone should feel insulted by what Giriraj Singh said it should not be the Gandhis. It should be the Nigerians, the Indian voter and the Congress Party.

That’s who could demand an apology.

The Nigerians already are. O.B. Okongor, the Acting High Commissioner, said “We expect the minister to withdraw the comments and apologise to the Nigerian people. We will notify our government about the issue.” Nigeria has a right to feel insulted. Singh was basically using them as an exemplar of the marital prospect no Indian would want in their right minds. Nigerian? Chheee! Singh didn’t pick the Nigerians out of the air. There is already immense prejudice around them as several recent incidents in Delhi have shown. But a minister, a representative of the people, should be trying to quash those prejudices. Instead Singh chose to reinforce them with a snicker. No surprise the Nigerians are upset.

 Fair and ugly: Its not Sonia who should feel offended by Girirajs comment

Giriraj Singh offended three groups of people with his Nigerian jibe. And none of them are named Sonia Gandhi.

The Indian voters could feel offended because they are the ones who have voted Sonia Gandhi to power over and over again by enormous margins. Singh’s statement created such a ruckus  because though crass it’s basically true. Indians are obsessed with their fair and lovely. The white tourist and the black tourist in India have very different experiences. But nonetheless the voter can be offended if they are told they are racist and suffering from a colonial hangover just as any mother-in-law looking for a fair and lovely bahu would be offended if she was told she was being racist. And Shah Rukh Khan would bristle at being called racist for selling us Fair and Handsome and insist it was just helping people be more “confident”.

And finally the Congress has a right to claim to have been insulted because Singh is implying that years and years after Annie Besant the party still worships whiteness. In reality the party is no more or less racist than the rest of the country. They lucked out with Sonia Gandhi because even though she is a foreigner she could “pass” as Indian-lite. They would have been just as lucky if she had been light-skinned Hispanic for that matter. As Patrick French has written in India:A Portrait:

"Despite Bal Thackeray’s jibes, most voters did not see her as a “white skin”; with her dark hair and light brown Italian complexion, she looked as if she might be from a similar ethnic background to the Nehrus, high-caste North Indians. Had she been blond Northern European or black African in origin, she would never have been credible as an Indian leader."

It also helped that she learned Hindi (even though she speaks it like an automaton), wears saris impeccably and is named Sonia, not that uncommon a name even in India. To use a Bollywood analogy Sonia has been able to make it in politics for the same reason a Kalki Koechlin is able to play a Punjabi girl in Delhi in Margarita with a Straw despite her French origin without raising too many eyebrows. Luckily for Koechlin she’s not a blue-eyed blonde. That would make her the object of many Indian fantasies but limit her Bollywood roles. It’s all about a suspension of disbelief – either in a movie theater or a polling booth.

But let’s not pretend Giriraj Singh was trying to make some astute commentary about race and xenophobia and colonial mindsets in India. He was plainly making a jibe at Sonia’s foreignness and her whiteness is part of that foreignness. And he knew he was about to be insulting because he told the media persons to turn off their recorders and not “sting” him. Honestly, Narendra Modi should be taking more note of his minister’s naivete than his racism. This is a man who once stung is not twice shy.

But then let’s look at the cast of characters calling Singh out on his “racist” remarks.

The Congress whose Digvijaya Singh once called a Meenakshi Natarajan a “tunch maal” or “sexy item” and whose Abhijit Mukherjee went after the “painted and dented women” is hardly in any position to throw stones at Giriraj Singh from inside their glasshouse.

Springing to Sonia Gandhi’s indignant defence the irrepressible Laloo Prasad Yadav said Giriraj Singh’s "dirty politics" has exposed the "true colour" of his training within the BJP.

Laloo Prasad demanded that Singh be shamed by having his face blackened and paraded with choodiyans.

And thus Laloo Prasad showed his own true colours and proved that though he and Singh are supposedly on opposite sides of this issue, in this Fair and Ugly row they are really brothers under the skin.

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Updated Date: Apr 03, 2015 08:13:04 IST